The birth of British Socialism interlaced with political plots and skulduggery
“Horrid, prissy, bourgeois little man! And this is our Labour Prime Minister! This is the man who’s going to make a revolution!.”
It was a brilliant move by Francis Beckett, the playwright and his biographer, to stage Clement Attlee: A Modest Little Man during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. It is, after all, a tale of the birth of British Socialism interlaced with political plots and skulduggery portrayed with great humour.
Who could be more appreciative than an audience of Labour activists meeting in one of the most left wing cities in the UK. The plot tells the tale of the life of Clement Attlee in a series of vignettes with his loyal wife Violet, well played by Lynne O’Sullivan, acting as the narrator.
I particularly loved the plotting by Herbert Morrison (Pete Picton) to replace Clement Attlee, in 1945, because he found him lacking in passion in his speeches. No wonder Peter Mandelson is his grandson. Skulduggery, runs in the genes.
The central figure, Attlee, a soft spoken man of few words but a walking encyclopedia on cricket, played by Roger Rose, was almost too softly spoken for this elderly reviewer but brilliant in capturing the essence of the man.
I could see a modern parallel with the present Labour leader Keir Starmer – a man who also lacks passion – but whose analytical brain could mean Labour will be more radical in tackling modern problems like climate change and developing the NHS than people expect. After the hysterical political chaos of Johnson and Truss a period of calm by a man of few words might be just what the electorate want.
There were some lovely lines in the play which chimed with the audience showing the contrast between Labour then and the Tories now. I particularly liked the line from his wife Violet after he left office. As she said: “A former Prime Minister can’t very well scratch around trying to make money, can he? It wouldn’t be decent.” A well played contrast with the antics of Johnson..
The play also showed the contrast between the man and his mission. As Jennie Lee put it to her hubby, Nye Bevan in a moment of extreme irritation “Horrid, prissy, bourgeois little man! And this is our Labour Prime Minister! This is the man who’s going to make a revolution! “
But a revolution is what he did: the creation of the NHS, nationalisation of all the major industries, the creation of the welfare state, a housing revolution, all at a time when Britain was bankrupt after the Second World War. And against a hostile press accusing Attlee of aping the defeated Nazis in wanting to set up the NHS. That’s why this play is worth seeing, reminding us of this amazing period in the UK’s history and the man behind it.
Clement Attlee – A Modest Little Man
Written by Francis Beckett
Directed by Owain Rose
Director: Owain Rose
Running Time: One hour and 35 minutes without an interval
Showing 26th and 27th September 2022
The Epstein Theatre
85 Hanover Street
Liverpool L1 3DZ
Phone: 0344 736 0151
Reviewed by David Hencke
at the Epstein Theatre
on 26th September 2022